A few weeks ago I heard a news story about new research that found that polyester clothing is more of an environmental concern than previously thought. The reason for this is that each time you wash polyester clothes, thousands of plastic microfibers are washed away and end up in groundwater or in the sea. The news story didn't mention the exact effects of the microfibers in the waste water. So my question is: how bad exactly are nylon and polyester clothing for the environment?

I tried to find more information about the original research, but wasn't able to find it. I did find this Guardian article about a researcher named Mark Browne who found back in 2011 that

85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.

But the same article also mentions:

Not only are synthetic fabrics durable and versatile, but they can have smaller water and energy footprint than natural fabrics

I suspect that the jury is still out on the final verdict. Does anyone know where I can find recent information about what is currently known about this (potential) problem?

  • 1
    They're discussing two different problems: resource use and toxic waste. How you balance those is very much a matter of opinion as there's no general comparison. In this case the microfibres are theoretically recoverable and could then be reused or recycles, but the resource cost of refining microfibres from seawater would be huge. We can't even do that for valuable stuff like gold. – Ⴖuі Nov 7 '15 at 6:29

I found more information about this, and since there hasn't been a single answer so far I'm going to self-answer my question based on what I found.

Information sources

  • There is a EU-sponsored research project called MERMAIDS that investigates this problem and links to various related and interesting news articles.
  • The Plastic Soup Foundation is cooperating with the MERMAIDS project and clothing manufacturer G-STAR to address the problem. G-Star and the Plastic Soup Foundation are calling upon other manufacturers to sign their Ocean Clean Wash Charter which also contains some interesting information about the research that was done so far.
  • The researcher Mark Brown mentioned in the question, has initiated a project called Benign by Design with the goal to "propel the textile industry toward cost effective fabrics that emit fewer and less toxic fibers"

The problem

There are several aspects that make this a rather worrying problem:

First of all recent research found that clothing gives off much more particles in a washing machine than previously thought. The 2011 paper written by Mark Browne mentioned over 1900 fibers per garment, but new research has found that a single polyester fleece sweeter gives off almost 1.000.000 fibers per wash. Especially polyester, acrylic and nylon are mentioned as bad materials.

Second, we know from past research that plastic particles in (sea)water absorb other toxins present in the water. We also know microplastics are eaten by marine animals, thus introducing toxic pollutants into the food chain.

Additionally waste water treatment plants lets microfibers through, so it could very well be that microfibers are also present in our drinking water. However I haven't been able to find any confirmation of this. It seems there hasn't been any research on microfibers in drinking water yet!?

As far as I've read there still is no direct evidence linking microfibers found in oceans to clothing but, as was also mentioned in the question, we do know that microfibers are released during washing and that microfibers make up 85% of all man-made materials found in various ocean water samples. Also the types and amount of fibers found on shores matches those used in the clothing industry. Based on these facts this article says that this could very well make microfibres from clothes the biggest source of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Potential solutions

Although research is still in progress, the MERMAIDS website mentions several solutions to at least reduce the problem:

  • Reduce friction between garments by

    1. filling up your washing machine to the max,
    2. use washing liquid instead of powder,
    3. use a fabric softener.
  • Reduce the amount of 'damage' to your clothing so less fibers are released by

    1. washing at low temperatures,
    2. avoiding long washings,
    3. dry spin at lower revolutions.

Furthermore the Ocean Clean Wash Charter mentions a few potential future solutions:

  • Develop washing machine filters that catch the microfibers
  • Develop synthetic fabrics or that don't give off microfibers
  • Develop impregnation that prevents the release of microfibers.

Of course you could also try to avoid buying polyester, acrylic and nylon clothing until a good permanent solution has been found and implemented.

  • There is now also a kickstarter campaign for a microfilter bag that "captures almost all of the fibers released in the washing process". Not sure how effective this really is – THelper Jun 25 '17 at 10:45
  • Perhaps you could make this good answer better by prefixing it with a summary and adding your conclusions (if any) about what clothing is preferable and/or how these rank against other materials, though perhaps the question Sustainability of different fabrics is enough, unless you disagree with it. – PJTraill May 16 '18 at 12:15

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